The other day, the IT department where I work sent out a security tips email. This month, the focus was on how important knowing your coworkers and who is supposed to be in the office can be. They linked to a very interesting article about how easy it is to scam a company into giving access to security info simply by acting like you belong there. The conclusion was a reminder to familiarize yourself with new folks in the growing company, introduce and find out who is in other departments, and so forth.
This sounds like straightforward and good advice, not hard to follow, and definitely worth it in the end. The article about the scammers (the people featured pull off demonstrations of this to train workplaces, but other folks are out there pulling the scam for real) was quite interesting. But what it reminded me of was one of the many reasons why I don’t tell most people that, in fact, I don’t recognize them and may have no idea who they are.
If people know you can’t tell friend from foe, it is easy to take advantage. Despite my best efforts, there will be little way I could help our company’s security by identifying interlopers. The IT department does not know that I have a hard enough time telling who they are, or the people in my same department.
I have prosopagnosia. The popular term for this is “face blindness”, which I find fairly misleading. As long as I’m wearing my contacts or glasses, I’m no blinder than anybody else. I can see faces just fine. Prosopagnosia translates roughly to “face agnostic.” That is, I don’t know whether or not I believe in that face. To me, everyone pretty much looks like they could be familiar.
Not all people with prospagosia handle mystery encounters this way, but I tend to err on the side of, if they act like I know them, I probably know them. And, I have a much easier time with some people than with other people depending on how distinctive or generic looking they are according to my mental classification system.
You can see how in the hacking scenario this would be a large security flaw. Luckily, I am not in charge of anything related to this in my line of work, and I do work in a secure building. There are myriad scenarios where this could cause disaster for my personal safety if someone were to target me, but I tend not to dwell on those.
The far bigger problem that prosopagnosia causes me is not how it enters into interactions with people I don’t know but think I might, but how it affects interactions with people I do know. And care about. To this end, I started telling those close to me about prosopagnosia and what it means. Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem, and in fact generally doesn’t meet with a very good reception. It’s such a foreign concept to someone without prosopagnosia what it might mean. Just as I suppose it’s as foreign to me what that special something is that other people see in a face. The fact that I don’t know what that is makes it hard for me to explain what it’s like when it’s missing, but the evidence is right in front of me, hurt reactions from people I care about, missed connections, generally alienating behavior (on top of my already lacking social skills). Not to know your fellow being’s face creates a whole host of assumptions about you, none of them flattering, and many of them often inaccurate. That’s not even covering the anxiety producing situations that this sometimes lands me in.
So, it is a topic that I try to explain again and again, and seek new ways of explaining and understanding. In part so people who know someone with prosopagnosia can see things from their perspective, and even help them, and to make those who think they know nobody like this aware of what it is like (most people with prosopagnosia are in hiding, trying to act normal) and in part to share with others with prosopagnosia, for I certainly find their stories endlessly fascinating. Everyone with the condition brings a different perspective, of course, despite what we share. My experience is compounded by other aspects of me, so it’s not universal, but it can perhaps be illuminating. If you have ever felt hurt by someone not knowing you, perhaps they too had this condition.
How, you might ask, can I QA The World if I cannot tell one person from another? Well, the answer to that is very simple. I can easily tell one person from another if they are standing right in front of me. I can match up two identical photographs or objects. I can compare two pages, source and recreation, and instantly identify minute differences between them (and report the errors, it’s what I do!). My favorite activity in the ever-present “Highlights” magazine in childhood doctor offices was the puzzle where you “find the differences” between the two pages. Even easier (and equally if not more entertaining) was searching for hidden pictures within a larger picture.
However, from what science has discovered about facial recognition (often in studying those with prosopagnosia, especially those who were not born with the condition but developed it after a head injury) is that there is a special area in most people’s minds which is devoted specifically to faces. It’s an extra boost that makes comparing faces, and seeing the face as a face, different than comparing two apples. That boost is what I don’t have. It seems so minor when you think about it that way, but with far-reaching implications.
If everyone’s appearance remained constant, I feel I would have no trouble recognizing them. However, in the world of changing hairstyles, clothing, even things like height and weight in time, the face is supposedly the reliable part. Most people to me change exponentially as they age. Comparing childhood photos with the same adult photo often astonishes and unsettles me. In some people, I can identify the similarities with careful comparison fairly easily, but they rarely look like the “same person” to me at all. In fact, even if they haven’t aged at all, they rarely look like the “same person” I saw last week. If I had to rely solely on faces, I would be completely lost.
Imagine a world where everyone has their face completely covered and obscured. Maybe, in this world, nobody cuts a head hole in the neck of their shirt, and they see with their fingers. To recognize people, you have to remember what their hands look like. Some are easy… you don’t mix up old wrinkly hands with young and plump (until they age…). Male and female have certain characteristically which can sometimes be distinguished. If their hands are different colors, if some of them are roughened with work, if some of them always have a certain sweet-smelling lotion, if some of them fidget nervously all the time in a certain way, if some of them have a particular ring or bracelet, and others have a joint missing, or hairy knuckles, or perfectly manicured nails, these are your clues. Those unique ones stand out, perhaps, in a sea of dissimilar hands. But what about the rest of the hands? Many of them could belong to seemingly anyone, until you’ve acquainted yourself with them thoroughly and memorized the very prints. Faces are just that unique looking to me. Yes, there are clues. But if you can imagine being expected to identify everyone by their hands, you can get an idea what someone with prosopagnosia deals with.
It’s important in this analogy that you’re probably thinking to yourself, oh, that’s not IMPOSSIBLE. There are all those clues, for one thing. And some of them do stand out. Think about the hands you know. Can you picture them, right now? Can you picture your mother’s hands? You might even be able to take her hand mentally and remember the exact feel, the pressure, the look of the nails and pattern of the skin. What about your cousin? What about her boyfriend? What about that person you go to class with everyday who sits at the end of the row? Can you picture the hands of each of your coworkers whom you greet every day and have coffee with? If you saw the hand of your favorite actor in the coffee shop downtown, would you know it?
This is like me with faces. Most people, I cannot picture their face right now. Most people, if you show me a picture of them and say go talk to this person, I will not match them up. I might eliminate the obvious non-matches… but depending upon the size of the pool, even a photo doesn’t necessarily do the trick. Plus there are always people who “look like” their photos and others who never seem to resemble them, at least to me.
Even in the world of hidden-headed folks there are other clues besides hands, naturally. Their clothes are a big clue. The way they walk, the way they stand. The voice is probably one of the biggest identifiers to me. Right now, I can hear the voice of my mother in my mind. I can describe her for you, the color of her eyes and hair, I can see the texture of her skin, I can picture the individual components of her face, her nose, her mouth. But, my mind can’t assemble that picture into a whole face that looks like her to my mind. At this point, perhaps I start to push my mind harder. Sometimes, I start to feel a little panicky. What I can do, is picture a photo. Or a drawing. I can look at one of those and memorize it, and call up the picture in my mind. I know that picture doesn’t necessarily look like that person all the time, but it looks like them at that moment. That can sometimes remind me of other picture memories I have of that person (and all my memories, are pictures), but in most of my memories their face is blurred or indistinct, or I can’t focus on it, any more than I can focus on exactly what their hand looks like. In the case of my mother, this is no distant memory. I saw her yesterday.
Even if I can memorize a photo, it doesn’t necessarily serve to recognize someone. The number of incidents this has caused could fill hours, so I’ll only mention some recent ones. In an extreme example, I went to a playgroup recently. I knew that I would know nobody there (it was a new group) so I painstakingly reviewed member pictures online. I looked at details to try to use as clues. Unfortunately, this works a lot better if I look at clues that stand out to me in person (I keep a log of such details regarding my immediate coworkers, for reference each time a new person joins the department). Somehow in the case of the playgroup, I came away with a mental image of the organizer as a perky young blond with about shoulder-length straight hair in a ponytail. In fact, she turned out to be a striking black woman with cocoa colored skin and black curly hair. How you might ask could I make such a mistake. Well, honestly I don’t know other than to say that… the photo wasn’t very clear, and I have prosopagnosia. Once I saw her in person, I quickly assembled an assortment of other clues, including what she was wearing that day (which would also later go into my mental catalog to become types of things she typically wears). Her most noticeable feature to me was the way she smiled. The texture or particular dryness of her skin stood out. Her overall size and shape will be key in future situations. However, ultimately, it’s extremely likely that when I run into her somewhere, it will only be because she says hi and I begin to match her against my database of “people I know” that I figure out who she truly is. It’s also very likely that if I did run into her somewhere she would reference the next or previous playgroup, which would be a huge clue. If she was a shy person who waited for me to say hi (like me), well then we’d be in a pickle and she’d probably come away from the encounter feeling a little hurt and unimportant, if previous experiences hold true. If she also has prosopagnosia, well then, we’d go about our own ways utterly oblivious to the fact we live next door to each other and never actually become friends based on what we have in common, since we don’t know we’re the same people.
I rely quite heavily on hair actually, it’s probably my next biggest clue after voice, height and body mass in space. Voice can occasionally be a problem on the phone, if somebody gets sick, or if they have a non-distinctive voice (“valley girl” speak? As bad a generic face. And usually coupled with a generic face and clothes :P). Sometimes, I meet somebody and find they have the exact voice of someone else, or an actor on TV, and this associates them in my mind even though they may look nothing the same. On the other hand if they’re the only person I know with a particular accent, and I meet someone else with the same accent and similar voice, I may feel an instant camaraderie (or mix them up if they look similar).
Today, I was talking to one of my friends outside my work. As she and I talked, I idly watched a man crossing the square nearby. He was tall, young, attractive. I glanced away from him and back to my friend for a few moments. Then I heard one of my coworkers speak behind me, whose voice I instantly recognized….and then realized it was the guy I’d been staring at, really gazing at for some time as he approached. My embarrassed fumbled explanation (which may have included the words “oh, so that was you!” served nothing to make the situation less awkward. He doesn’t know I have prosopagnosia, and it’s probably not a topic I’ll broach with him since we don’t really know each other very well anyway. People don’t usually react very well. They’re offended when I don’t recognize them (especially if I don’t “acknowledge” them when I see them as someone I know), but they’re little less offended, at least at first, at the notion that I may not be able to identify them at all. There is a feeling that if I care, I will. There is something in that if I care, I will try, very, very hard, to memorize other details, without which there’s almost zero chance. But it’s still unlikely that I will recognize them if I encounter them in an unusual situation with no other clues and they don’t tip me off that they know me. However, it’s a bitter pill for people to swallow. On some level they still believe that while I may have this probably with others, surely I’ll know THEM. Does this have something to do with me gravitating towards people with unique characteristics? My friend that I was talking to in the anecdote above knows. But even people who know, I think, have a hard time fathoming it. She’s sure if she saw me somewhere unusual, I would know it was her. I tell her, don’t think I’m ignoring you if you see me and I don’t respond. I’ll recognize you if you talk to me. My friend has it going for her that she has an identifiable accent. Also, I know her look, her size, her way of moving. I hope she never gets a makeover.
There are so many areas in which prosopagnosia touches my life, but much of the time, I don’t take it into consideration enough. Possibly because I don’t know what it’s like having the ability of facial recognition in the first place, I only become aware of the void through the actions of others. Being conscious of it and on the look out for it has helped me a lot to adapt.
What issues would you like to see explored relating to this condition? I’m always willing to talk about it and answer questions (maybe even as future posts). Even when I’m hesitant to admit to a close friend that I don’t know them (and hurt their feelings even more perhaps), I’d love to share a broader understanding. In a personal setting, even those who know rarely ask more about it (perhaps it feels too personal to them), nor do I often have a situation which allows for exploring it in-depth until someone truly understands.
Do you have it yourself? Do you know anybody with it? You may not know that you do. They may not know it themselves yet.